Saturday, 7 June 2014


Autumn in Kyoto
Kinkaku-Ji or Golden Pavilion
Kyoto is the Japan you may have imagined - magical temples and Zen gardens, colourful Shinto shrines and elegantly dressed geisha flitting between wooden tea houses. I read it somewhere: Kyoto is the Japan of the past and Japan of the imagination. And it is so true, I found here everything I had imagined I would see in Japan. It wasn´t Tokyo or Osaka that impressed me in Japan, it is Kyoto!
Kyoto is best to be visited undoubtedly in spring or autumn for the cherry blossom bloom or the colourful autumn leaves. Summer is extremely hot and humid and winter is freezing. And I can assure you that even beginning of winter is freezing cold. 
I got to Kyoto by bus which is 5 times cheaper than the train (and probably 5 times slower, with breaks at every hour!). My couchsurfing host Masa was waiting for me at the bus station and took me to a real nice sushi go round restaurant with a conveyor belt and endless variety of dishes! It was so good, much better than the same kind of restaurants in Europe!
This was the first thing I did in Kyoto, straight from the bus to a sushi restaurant
Such a big variety of food
Masa and his surf board # 5

As everyone else Masa has hosted. I had to put a pin in the map

It`s impossible to visit all the sites and temples in Kyoto...There are so many and also most of them charge a fee (usually 400-600 JPY Admission fees) so at the end you have to make your selection of temples to visit.

I started off with Fushimi Inari or also known as The Red Road.
This vast shrine complex is a world unto its own. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive and memorable sights in all of Kyoto. A pathway wanders 4km up the mountain and is lined with hundreds of red torii (shrine gates). There are also dozens of stone foxes which are considered the messenger of Inari.

If you  wear a kimono, all temples are free for you. Not sure if that applies to foreigners

Lots of restaurants and street food on the way to the shrine

Write your wish!

Fushimi Inari. The beginning.
Fushimi Inari is also free of admission fee

Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace grounds, smack in the center of Kyoto, are a sprawling park full of romantic pathways, century’s old pine trees and landscaped gardens. It’s a perfect place to stroll and escape modern Kyoto’s traffic and cement facade.
Imperial Palace park - it is so huge that no matter the tourists, it never feels crowded
Kinkaku-Ji or Golden Pavilion
It´s beautiful but so crowded! Thousands of people. My advice - go early (very early) in the morning!
Couldn't take a close up photo of their faces but 90% of the young girls wear artificial eyelashes

Masa took me to his favourite temple in Kyoto which was in Northern Kyoto, in a rural town nestled in the mountains called Ohara, about one hour from Kyoto Station but still technically located within Kyoto's city limits. And I think it is my favourite too - Sanzen-In temple. The path from the town to the temple is lined with numerous small shops. One of the local specialties on sale are aisu kyuri, cucumbers pickled in seaweed flavored ice water and served on a stick. I think I tried almost everything before we got to the temple. 

They love their pickles here

Aisu kyuri

Some pretty colourful fish here

Sanzen-In temple
Sanzen-In temple

Ready for Okonomi-yaki
Okonomi-yaki - Japanese pizza

Shimbashi is a beautiful little street in the heart of Gion. I think it's a must see. It's a beautifully quaint cobblestone road lined with trees and a beautiful stream. Ryokans and tea houses straddle the stream and its stunning during all times of the year. Of course I was told that is most beautiful when the cherry blossoms are in bloom (as everything else in the country it seems). You can spot a geiko o maiko if you are lucky (and fast enough).

They say it´s the most beautiful street in Asia
"Geisha in the house" sign

Geisha signs everywhere in Gion

Getting used to drinking sake
Masa and his friend
Lots of shops for hand fans in Gion

© Q.Sawami/© JNTO
Maiko are the apprentices of Geisha. Generally girls who are aspiring to become Maiko enter an Okiya (Geisha houses) at the age of 15-20 in Kyoto, and are trained for some years, then they are recognized as Geisha. If you spend enough time on the streets of Gion, you might be lucky to spot one of them...but you have to be quick because despite of their uncomfortable platform flip-flops, they move so fast (like ninjas :)) that before you realise it, they will duck out of sight and slip into one of the wooden houses around. 

Gion corner
The entrance to Nishimi market

Cute but so uncomfortable..

Kyoto theatre at Gion corner

I have to admit that I got completely lost the first night when I got back to Masa´s house. As i left the house in the morning together with him, i didn´t pay attention to the neighbourhood. And in the evening when I got off the metro and made my way towards the street where his house was, it was already dark and I found myself surrounded by 100 identical houses. I had a key for one of them and the address in Japanese, which I couldn´t decipher of course. I knew Masa was at a wedding party and would come back pretty late and also I didn´t have a cell phone to call him. Felt so useless! 
Started asking people on the street (not many around!), showing them the note Masa wrote me with his address and phone number and in 10 minutes I had 4 people with me, all trying to call Masa, checking google maps for the address and looking for the house! They all were so nice and helpful. It was around 10 pm already but they spend a fair amount of time trying to help me. At the end we found it! And when I tried the key and the door opened, everyone applauded and was very relieved!  Silly me and my not existing sense of directions!

Despite of being late, a homemade dinner Masa´s mum made for me was there as always :))
She always made sure I´m fed and not cold! Even gave me a jacket when I left because I was getting a cold!
Regrets: never went to the bamboo forest in Kyoto, never tried a kimono on! Would also love to come back and see the city in spring and the famous cherry blossoms. And maybe get a new jacket for Masa´s mum!

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